How to Be a Leader Through Change
Discover the strategies it takes to be an effective change agent in your organization.
Change is hard. It’s also inevitable.
As a business psychologist, I’ve coached executives for more than two decades on leading through change. Some have been forced into change to save their organizations. Others have implemented it as a way for their businesses to grow.
I like to remind those I’m working with that change also presents real opportunities — both for organizations and individuals. Those who can effectively lead through it will be sought out for their vision, adaptability and ability to create high-impact change. Here are the five principles that can make you successful when approaching periods of major transition.
Leading through change is like putting a puzzle together. You begin by reaching out to people to gather all of the pieces. Then you position the pieces in a new and innovative way that will set your organization up for success. Change drives uncertainty, and employees find comfort in direction. When you get honest feedback from enough stakeholders, your strategic direction becomes clear. Trust the process. And if a clear direction does not emerge, ask more questions and listen more intently. Only then will your puzzle start to come together.
In any situation — but especially in stressful situations of change — I find that what matters most is not what I said but what gets heard. Even more difficult is that people too often hear what they want to hear. I’ve been known to ask others, “Did I really say that?” Thankfully, the answer that usually comes back is, “No, that is not what I heard you say.” Leading through a period of change requires interpersonal bandwidth, and it can be exhausting. You have to adapt your communication style to the unique needs of your audience multiple times a day. But in the end, it’s time and energy well spent because it leads to tailored and clearer communication.
During any period of uncertainty, it’s critical to show your investment in others. Focus on your organization’s intellectual capital by supporting professional development that reinforces your strategic objectives. Set clear expectations on performance, and influence your superiors to get people the resources they need to do their jobs more effectively. Be transparent and direct, and if you have to have unpleasant conversations, do so in a way that shows people they matter. Gaining and earning trust is an important part of effective leadership. Every day is an opportunity to earn that trust by showing competence and commitment, and an opportunity to see those qualities in others.
It’s often tempting to change a lot all at once, but that’s a classic mistake. In those first few weeks after a change is announced, people flood you with priorities and you have to focus on the fundamentals. Even with the best intentions of staying focused, you’ll find it is easy to get distracted. Many people will want to pitch the ideas they didn’t sell to the last leader. Make your answers about the strategic direction and question how their ideas fit — or don’t — with that new direction. Bottom line: if what they pitch doesn’t fit, we probably should not pursue it.
Leadership and learning go hand in hand. All learning endeavors require honest reflection and adjustment. Take time every day to debrief your actions and decisions. What went well? What didn’t? What can you do differently — and how? Some people will love what you’re doing. And some won’t. At the end of the day, being fair, respectful and professional is a solid strategy for success. As any good leader knows, nothing should compromise that.
Nancy Schreiber is dean of The Bill Munday School of Business at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. She has a doctorate in Clinical Psychology, is a member of the American Psychological Association and the Society for Human Resource Professionals, and is a licensed psychologist in the state of Texas.
This article appeared in the Austin Business Journal on May 8, 2015.
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